BIG MAMA THORNTON: A TRIBUTE

BIG MAMA THORNTON December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984

RECOMMENDED ALBUMS: BIG MAMA THORNTON IN EURPOE (Arhoolie), BIG MAMA THORNTON AND THE MUDDY WATERS BLUES BAND (Arhoolie), THE ORIGINAL HOUND DOG (Ace Records)

While there are many who claim to be the true “Queen of the Blues” few make a better argument then Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Born near Montgomery, Alabama in 1926 Big Mama enjoyed an incredible career that lasted over 30 years. Even though she never became as much of a household name as the people she influenced she still made her mark on the music world. While she is best known for singing the original version of the song “Hound Dog” (a song that was written specifically for her) that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her influence on music history. An openly gay African-American woman in the music industry Big Mama was a trailblazer. She commanded the stage with her towering figure and booming voice. Artists such as Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin sang her praises (quite literally in the case of Janis) and there is even a music camp for young women named in her honor (williemaerockcamp.org). While life wasn’t always easy for Big Mama she always stuck to her guns and kept moving forward.
BIG MAMA’S HOUND DOG
Recorded 1952 and released on Don Robey’s Peacock Records, Big Mama’s version of “Hound Dog” was an instant hit. Originally more of a blues song, “Hound Dog” was written with Big Mama specifically in mind by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Even though the song eventually became a number 1 hit, it didn’t translate into a big payday for anyone except record label owner Don Robey. While the exact story isn’t totally clear, Big Mama only received $500 for her services and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller got almost nothing. Of course Leiber and Stroller would eventually cash in BIG in 1956 when Elvis Presley recorded his reworked version of “Hound Dog” but as Big Mama wasn’t one of the songwriters the success of the Elvis version didn’t translate into any kind of payday for her. Always the business man, Robey tried to cash in again for himself when the Elvis version became a hit by rereleasing Big Mama’s version of the track but nothing much came of it. In 1965 Big Mama re-recorded the tune with blues guitar great Buddy Guy for her album BIG MAMA THORNTON IN EUROPE. This version might be some of her best work and smokes any version ever sung by Elvis.
THE SIXTIES
While she made many recordings during her career it was her live performances that set her apart from other blues singers. An entertainer through and though, Big Mama was a multi-instrumentalist and her live show regularly featured her playing a variety of instruments. She kept a rigorous touring schedule usually touring as part of travelling multi-performer blues revues and package tours with other artists. Even though she was almost always the only woman on these shows Big Mama NEVER got pushed around and usually was the highlight of the show. In fact there were several times when performing as the opening act, she put on such a powerful show that the headliner refused to perform! That said, the life of a touring musician can be a grueling and strenuous one. In the late 50’s. Rock n’ Roll and Soul started taking over the music charts and soon barroom blues artists like Big Mama were left on the outside looking in. Realizing it was time for a change she relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area and began performing in local clubs.
 As the sixties began Big Mama started to see her career pick up steam again. In 1965 she recorded her first album for the Berkeley based roots music label Arhoolie. Entitled BIG MAMA THORNTON IN EUROPE, and recorded while she was on tour in Europe with traditional Chicago blues legends Buddy Guy, Big Walter Horton, and Eddie Boyd this album turned out to be one of the best albums of her career. While Big Mama sounds right at home fronting a big electric band, producer (and Arhoolie label owner) Chris Strachwitz fortunately had the foresight to know she would also sound good in an acoustic setting. So he paired her with country blues guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell for three songs. A second record for Arhoolie followed in 1966 this time pairing Big Mama with The Muddy Waters Blues band.  Again Big Mama nails these recordings and sounds so good you almost forget that Muddy Waters was also in the room. The Arhoolie albums proved to be nothing short of a godsend for her career. While she still fell short of being a household name the albums introduced her music to a younger audience and made her a regular on the blues and folk festival circuit.
In 1966 while performing in a San Francisco club Big Mama was approached by a young Janis Joplin. A huge fan of Big Mama’s, Janis asked her if she could cover her song Ball N’ Chain with her band Big Brother & The Holding Company. Big Mama gave Janis her blessing and soon thereafter Janis and her group reworded the song into a loud rockin slow blues. After being a live staple of their live show for several years Janis and her band released a live version of Ball N’ Chain in 1968 on their album CHEAP THRILLS. The album became a huge hit and Ball N’ Chain soon became a blues standard performed by many different groups. While this time Big Mama was credited as the songwriter, the matter of who owned the copyright became a huge mess. Apparently Big Mama had recorded the song in the early 60’s for Bay Tone records but the label never released the recording. They did however hold onto the copyright which allowed them to cash in on the song’s success thanks to the CHEAP THRILLS album. So while Big Mama did see some royalties from the recording she definitely didn’t make as much as she should have.
THE FINAL YEARS
Trying to ride the success of Janis Joplin’s version of Ball N’ Chain on CHEAP THRILLS, Arhoolie Records released a third Big Mama album entitled BALL N’ CHAIN. While the album is mostly a collection of her previously released Arhoolie Recordings the record does contain her performing a newly recorded version of Ball N’ Chain. Unfortunately this would be her last album for Arhoolie. Even with the success of Ball N’ Chain and Janis Joplin singing her praises she still failed to gain the national notoriety she deserved. As the 70’s began Big Mama continued to perform but her recorded output, while solid, was much less inspired and didn’t grab the attention of anyone besides blues connoisseurs. It also didn’t help that her health was beginning to fail due to years of drinking and hard living. In 1983 she was involved in a terrible automobile accident. She continued to perform but her mobility was limited. She ended up passing away from a heart attack in 1984 at only 57 years of age.
While she left us too soon and definitely didn’t ever achieve the notoriety she deserved she more than made her mark on the musical world. Fortunately all of her Arhoolie albums are still in print (as of Feb 2021) and are digitized and available on iMusic and Spotify. As for her earlier Peacock works, there are many collections available on-line and in record stores.  For those that want to see her in action there are many videos of her on YouTube where you can see her and different stages of her career.  Hopefully her body of work continues to find new ears and eyes and bring attention

THE DEDICATED MEN OF ZION: Can’t Turn Me Around

CAN’T TURN ME AROUND Bible & Tire Records

For fans of Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and The Staple Singers

The new record from the Dedicated Men of Zion reminds us that the lines between traditional gospel and R&B are blurry at best. Filled with foot-stomping rockers and swinging soulful ballads, CAN’T TURN ME AROUND, is just as appropriate for Saturday Night as it is for Sunday morning. Hailing from rural North Carolina the group has gone through a number of lineup changes since it’s incarnation in 2014. In 2018 the group’s current lineup, consisting of Anthony Daniels, Antoine Daniels, Dexter Weaver, and Marcus Sugg caught the attention of The Music Maker Relief Fund. The Music Maker Relief Fund is a non-profit organization that helps musicians in the rural south meet their day-to-day needs and promote their music. Even though the band was already popular regionally, working with the Music Maker Relief fund helped the group reach a larger audience and eventually find the ears of Bruce Watson’s Bible & Tire Record label.

Bible & Tire Records was started by Bruce Watson in 2018 as a vehicle for him to record and release “sacred soul” music. A music industry veteren, Watson has made a career out of recording and producing different forms of roots music, most notably albums by Hill Country Blues artists for Fat Possum records. Now with his attention focused squarely on sacred soul artists, Watson’s hit it outta the park again with CAN’T TURN ME AROUND by the Dedicated Men of Zion. Although this might technically be a gospel record, Watson and the Dedicated Men of Zion show us you don’t need to be religious to enjoy religious music, all you need is a pulse.
 The album opens with the hard-driving blues shuffle of “Father, Guide Me, Teach Me”.  One thing that’s immediately noticeable here is that even though the Men of Zion obviously have some incredible vocal abilities they also know how to leave space for each other. As with other gospel groups like The Dixie Hummingbirds or Blind Boys of Alabama everyone gets a chance to showcase their talent but it’s their harmonies that make this group special. While it’s obvious the Men of Zion have a special chemistry with each other, that isn’t the only reason they work so well together. All the guys have spent years performing not only in churches but also performing as hired guns backing up some of music’s biggest acts. Having that type of talent along with the musical maturity to know that “less is sometimes more”, is why these guys are well seasoned performers of the highest caliber.
The album’s second track is the haunting “A Leak in This Old Building”. Here the guys successfully bring down the tempo (but not the energy) as they vocally sway back and forth over a sweltering organ part. This is where gospel and soul music intersect. Sounding a little like a mix of Ray Charles’ “Hard Times” and Isaac Hayes “Walk On” this song makes you understand that while the guys have experienced real pain in their lives, they still press on. Fortunately the somber mood doesn’t last long as guys bring the mood back up on the next two tracks “Down Here Lord” and “I Feel Alright”.
Another stand out track on the album is “It’s a Shame”.  A statement about the current troubled state of today’s society is more inspiring than sad. Thanks to a danceable groove this song might not make you want to dance but instead get up and march. It’s also the most traditional “soul” song on the album and is reminiscent of music recorded in the late 60’s at Stax Records. Speaking of Stax, a big part of the record’s vintage sound is the amazing back-up band.  Mark Stuart (bass), George Sluppick (Drums), Calvin Barnes (Hammond Organ) and Will Sexton (guitar) are all in-demand studio musicians from Memphis, and play with a style reminiscent of Stax studio legends Booker T. & The MG’s. Like many famous studio bands, they provide a solid foundation for each song that allows the vocalists the space to do great things. In short, you might not necessarily notice them when listening to this record but if they weren’t there you’d miss them.

 The bottom line is that The Dedicated Men of Zion’s new record CAN’T TURN ME AROUND is a record that is desperately needed today. It’s inspiring, hopeful, and most of all reminds us that yes, things have been bad before but if we work together we can survive this and make it to the promised land.. whatever you deem that to be.

HERE’S LITTLE RICHARD!: A Tribute

While the question of who started Rock N’ Roll will never be answered definitively, Little Richard was by far one of its main architects. His early recordings for Specialty Records inspired musical giants like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, his live performances inspired the likes of James Brown and Otis Redding, and at one point he even employed a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix in his band. He’s been in movies, on TV shows, and is a member of both the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. That said, even with all of the success he enjoyed in his career he had a complicated life.  Once, while on tour with his band in Australia in 1957, he had a religious “awakening”. He immediately cancelled a concert, decided he was going to do gospel music, then suddenly started disposing of all his jewelry. While this story has taken many forms over the years (some versions have him on a boat throwing the jewelry overboard), one thing is certain, he did leave pop music for a while and strictly recorded gospel. When he retuned to pop music several years later he found other musicians had taken his share of the spotlight. He continued to record and had some limited success with songs here and there but nothing like he’d experienced in the 50’s. 
     In the studio, Richard was never better than he was on the recordings he made for Specialty Records in the 1950’s. Produced by the legendary the producer Bumps Blackwell and recorded by some of New Orleans finest players, these recordings inspired generations of musicians.  It was during one of these early Specialty sessions that Richard’s legendary hit “Tutti Frutti” was recorded. Originally a playful song about homosexual sex, Blackwell felt the lyrics were too much for general audiences so he asked songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to help clean up the lyrics so the song could be on the radio.  Richard himself plays piano on the track. As the song was a late addition to the session, the groups main piano player Huey Smith didn’t have time to learn the part. The song was a hit and eventually reached #17 on the pop Billboard charts. It also inspired several cover version some of which actually charted higher than Richard’s original version. Regardless, this was the beginning of a successful run for Richard and Specialty. 
       While the Specialty years were Richard’s most successful years in the recording studio, one of my personal favorite Little Richard recordings is his version of Don Covay’s “I Don’t Know What You Got But It’s Got Me” recorded for VeeJay Records in 1965. The song is a bit of a change stylistically for Richard who was trying to adapt to the new sound of Soul music that was becoming popular thanks to artists like The Temptations and Otis Redding. Here, Richard gives an outstanding performance that finds him shouting like a Baptist preacher and to make things a little more interesting, features a relatively unknown guitarist at the time named Jimi Hendrix.  
Another time that Richard hit pay dirt in the studio was at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals AL. The year was 1970 and Richard was in town recording what was supposed to be his comeback album, “The Rill Thing”.  While the album didn’t hit the charts like the Richard would’ve hoped, he did record a song called “Greenwood, Mississippi”.  Written by guitarist Junior Lowe and Travis Wammack, the tune is a straight-ahead Country Rocker with a little bit of Soul-flare. Easily the strongest tune on the album, Richard’s vocal take reminds folks where John Fogerty got his vocal sound from. 
      Even though Richard was pretty absent on the Billboard charts for most of his career he was always an in-demand live performer. In his early years on the road Richard’s act was so popular he sometimes would get double booked. As he couldn’t be in two places at once, an impersonator would be hired to play the show the real Little Richard couldn’t perform at. This seem to work for a while until TV became more popular in households across the country. While it might sound like a shady act to fool an audience in this way, things could’ve been worse. A few times Richard’s management hired a young man by the name of James Brown to be “Little Richard” for an evening. Otis Redding was another popular choice. All that said, most folks who were in the audiences said they knew they weren’t getting the REAL Little Richard but were still entertained. 
    There’s no question that Little Richard is one of the most influential musicians of all time. But did he invent Rock N’ Roll? No. It’s hard to say there was ONE person who is responsible for one of music’s most popular genres, but he is one of Rock’s main architects. It’s unfortunate he didn’t get more recognition while he was alive but to be fair part of that was because of Richard himself. He was a talented but complicated guy. Nevertheless, he is Rock n’ Roll royalty and we all owe him a big debt of gratitude. 

GOSPEL MUSIC IS THE ROOTS?

The late great Willie Dixon once said “The Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits”.  While it might be taboo to disagree with a musical legend like Dixon (especially while he was alive as he was also a 300-lbs boxer), I must respectfully do so.  In my personal opinion, it is Gospel and spiritual music that we have to credit with being the musical tree that provided us with most all other forms of popular music.
While popular music may have evolved further and further away from it’s roots in Gospel and spiritual music over the years you can still hear the genre’s influence in some of today’s popular music.  Example, when you listen to artists like Beyonce’, Childish Gambino, and Bruno Mars you can definitely hear that somewhere along the way they were influenced, maybe indirectly, by artists like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles.  James, Aretha, and Ray were all influenced heavily by Gospel music.  Aretha grew up in the in the church, Ray took a song by the little known gospel group The Southern Tones and turned it into “I Got A Women”, and Mr. Brown’s stage show was basically a secular version of a baptist revival. Same with Country music. You’d be hard pressed to find a country artist today that wasn’t inspired by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, or George Jones in some way.  Each of those artists recorded gospel albums over their long and impressive careers.  Rock music? Same thing.  Most modern rock bands in some way have been inspired by artists like The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, etc. Those artists listened to the Blues and Blues came from Gospel and spiritual music. We could talk about how Jamaican Reggae and Ska musicians listened to Blues, R&B, and Gospel music in the 1950’s over radio waves they picked up from America, but my feeling is you’re getting my point. The roots of most genres of popular music begin in Gospel and spiritual music.
Now, while one might enjoy the melodies in Gospel music there still might be a hang up when it comes to the lyrics.  I totally understand that.  Personally I am not a religious person and identify more as an atheist. Still, I LOVE classic gospel and spiritual music!  I love the passion in the music and the wonderful melodies.  Also, I appreciate how Gospel music has helped a lot of folks through some very rough times in history.  So while I may not have all the same beliefs as the person singing the music I am still able to enjoy the music.
Here are some of my favorite Gospel albums and artists that I hope you’ll check out.
STAPLE SINGERS
FREEDOM HIGHWAY epic records
 While a live album of the same name was released in 1965 (which is also excellent) this record is compiled of studio versions of Gospel classics such as “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, and “Wade In The Water”.  The record also features probably the best song band leader Roebuck “Pops” Staples ever wrote, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”. Pops wrote the song after watching the events surrounding “The Little Rock Nine” unfold on television.  The song became a hit not only for the Staple Singers but also an anthem of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s.
BROTHER JOHN SELLERS
BAPTISTS SHOUTS & GOSPEL SONGS smithsonian folkways recordings
Born in Mississippi in 1924, Brother John Sellers was one of the best (and most underrated) Blues/Gospel singers ever to record. His larger-then-life voice is best showcased here on his 1959 album BAPTISTS SHOUTS & GOSPEL SONGSSellers was discovered by the great Mahalia Jackson when he was a youngster performing in local gospel showcases.  As an adult he became an in-demand entertainer performing all over the world with legends like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Jo Jones, and Jackson herself. He passed away from diabetes related complications in 1999.
MAHALIA JACKSON:
MAHALIA! SINGS GOSPEL RIGHT OUT OF THE CHURCH columbia records
During Mahalia Jackson’s impressive career she introduced millions of music lovers all over the world to Gospel music. She inspired artists such as James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin, performed for world leaders, and was a powerful presence in the civil rights movement.  While she has hundreds of recordings my personal favorite is MAHALIA! SINGS GOSPEL RIGHT OUT OF THE CHURCH.  The material is mostly up beat and beautifully recorded. Even though this record came out later in Jackson’s career her voice has never sounded better.
THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS
20th CENTRY MASTERS COLLECTION
MCA Records
Few Gospel vocal groups have been more influential then The Dixie Hummingbirds. During the 1940’s and 50’s (generally referred to as “The Golden Age of Gospel”), they were megastars. They packed arenas, paved the way for future vocal groups like The Temptations and The Four Tops, and sold piles of records.  You can even trace their influence to modern pop groups like Boys II Men and N’Sync.  While the Hummingbirds have many recordings available a great place to start is their “best of” collection “THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS 20th CENTURY MASTERS”. This collection gives you a good overview of their sound and features their Grammy winning hit “Loves Me Like A Rock”.
THE SOUL STIRRERS
JOY IN MY SOUL: THE COMPLETE SAR RECORDINGS
ABKCO Music & Records
The Soul Stirrers were another group that were megastars during the Gospel’s golden age.  While they are best known for being the group that kick-started Sam Cooke’s career in the 1950’s, the group’s origins go back to the mid 1930’s.  With Cooke in the group the Stirrers achieved rockstar-like status and recorded several hits for Specialty Records.  While the group was at their musical best when they were with Cooke, my personal favorite collection of theirs is JOY IN MY SOUL: THE COMPLETE SAR RECORDINGS.  This collection features recordings the group did for Sam Cooke’s own record label SAR Records after he had officially left the group. Many of these recordings were produced by Cooke himself and show that even in their later years the group was one of the very best vocal Gospel groups.
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
GOSPEL OF THE BLUES
MCA RECORDS

Born in Arkansas in 1915 Sister Rosetta Tharpe influenced Rock and Popular music more then most people know.  A young Little Richard got his start by opening for her before anybody knew who he was. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan all cite Sister Rosetta as a major influence, and during her heyday she performed for stadium sized crowds all over the world. In short, Sister Rosetta was a rockstar before Rock n’ Roll even existed.

While there are many recordings of Sister Rosetta available a good place to start when wanting to learn more about her music is a collection of her early recordings entitled THE GOSPEL OF THE BLUES.  This collection is complied of tracks recorded 1938 – 1948 and features a dynamite version of her hit “Shout, Sister, Shout”. The record also features a number of her recordings with Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra and the Sammy Price Trio. These tracks show that Sister Rosetta could swing as hard as she could rock!

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND

LastDaysofOakland

 

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND 

LABEL: Blackball Universe

For fans of Fishbone, Tom Waits, Funkadelic, Junior Kimbrough

For those of you who believe there is no more good new music being released these days, I invite you to listen to the new album, THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND, from multi-instrumentalist Fantastic Negrito. Born Xavier Dphrepaulezz, and raised in a strict and religious household, the man now known as Fantastic Negrito is one of the most exciting artists to emerge from the Bay Area music scene in a long time. He moved to Oakland when he was 12 years old and immediately immersed himself in the wide variety of music styles that make up the Bay Area music scene. This explains to us why Dphrepaulezz’s own musical style really can’t be described as one genre. Elements of Funk, Soul, Gospel, Folk, and Blues make up the songs on THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND, and much like the city the album is named after, the music on the album is wonderful blend of styles and culture.

While this might be the first release for “Fantastic Negrito” it’s not the first release for Xavier Dphrepaulezz. In the early 90’s Dphrepaulezz was living in Los Angeles and briefly signed to Interscope Records and released one album. The album failed to satisfy the powers that be at Interscope and he was released from the label. Frustrated he actually gave up music. He then was involved in a terrible car accident which left him bedridden for several months. He returned to Oakland and several years later after the birth of his son the creative juices started to flow again and “Fantastic Negrito” was born.

The music on THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND takes the listener on a journey through the history of American roots music. The haunting Blues-Gospel tune “In The Pines” is a song that dates back to the late 1800’s and has been covered by everyone from Leadbelly to Nirvana. Here the song is given new life by Fantastic Negrito who recently released an accompanying video to the song that talks about the impact of gun violence in America today. Another stand-out track on the record is “Lost In The Crowd”. Originally released on his Deluxe LP in 2015 Fantastic Negrito commands your attention while he screams and shouts through this bluesy-rocker. A word also must be mentioned about the album’s cover art. The cover art features a character sitting a top a street sign that marks the location of Saint Andrews Plaza in West Oakland. Behind them is a beautiful drawing of the City of Oakland and a sunset. It might not be as important as the music on the record but the cover art truly makes this album a complete work of art. For fans who like something a little different or are fans of artists like Tom Waits, Fishbone, and Funkadelic, THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND is a must have.

 

JAMES GOVAN 1949-2014

james govan

James Govan might be the best singer you’ve never heard of. A staple of the local music scene for many years, James Govan was born in McComb, Mississippi in 1949.  His first big break came in 1967 when his talent caught the attention of songwriter/producer George Jackson. Jackson, who at the time was a songwriter for the legendary Muscle Shoals record label FAME, immediately recognized there was something special in James’ voice and decided to introduced him to FAME Records owner Rick Hall.  Hall also heard potential and soon after their meeting James starting recording sides for FAME. While the material was strong and James would go on to recorded a number of songs for FAME between 1969 and 1972  the label only released a few of them as singles. In fact, most of the music went unreleased until 2013 when the good people at ACE Records complied and released James Govan Wanted: The FAME Recordings. Even though none of these recordings were big hits it’s still an amazing body of work that’s essential to any Soul music fan’s record collection.

After his time with FAME, James went back to Beale Street where he became a regular performer in blues clubs. He released one album in 1982 which went nowhere and after that didn’t release any new music until the 1990’s. He saw some success again in 1993 when his performance at the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy made him a popular performer in Europe. He then released another album in 1996 but like his previous albums, it failed to draw any attention. James may have never had that “big hit record” but he always delivered the good live. He was a regular performer at the famous Run-Boogie Cafe in Memphis for over 20 years.

Sadly James passed on July 18, 2014. Fortunately his amazing talent will live on through his recordings and hopefully in time make James Govan into a household name. You can purchase James Govan Wanted: The FAME Recordings here

 

 

MAVIS STAPLES: A Tribute to a legend

 

Mavis Staples is a living legend.  Over the past 60 years she’s not only brought Gospel music to the masses but she’s also been a voice of hope and strength for those fighting for Civil Rights. Her career started in Chicago during the late 1940’s when she and her siblings would perform in churches alongside their father, the legendary Roebuck “Pops” Staples.  With a sound that was rooted in Southern Gospel and Delta Blues “The Staple Singers” soon became local favorites and in the early 50′s began recording sides for labels like VeeJay, Riverside, and Checker.  In addition to gospel music fans the band was also embraced by the folk music scene during the folk revival of late 50′s and early 60′s. It was during this time that the band became very active in the civil rights movement and regularly performed at rallies and events hosted by Dr. Martin Luther King.

In the late 60′s and early 70′s the music scene was changing and the band changed right along with it. They signed with the legendary STAX Records and under the guidance of STAX A&R man Al Bell they started adopting more of a Soul-Gospel style. Their music might have become a little funkier but it still contained the same message of hope, love and compassion. Songs like “Respect Yourself“, and “I’ll Take You There” made the band a household name and catapulted them into stardom. Unfortunately, due to some questionable business decisions by Al Bell STAX Records filed for bankruptcy in 1975 and was forced to shutdown.

The Staples pressed on and over the next several years put out several releases for a variety of different labels. While they had success with their 1975 album LET’S DO IT AGAIN the group mostly was out of the spotlight until the 1990’s. During the 2000’s Mavis continued to perform and release solo albums. Paired with producers such as Ry Cooder and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, these records introduced Mavis to a whole new audience. In 2013 her Jeff Tweedy-produced album You Are Not Alone won a Grammy for “Best Americana Album”.

This year Mavis will turn 75 years young and she’s just as popular as ever. People all over the world still cram into venues to see her perform and she’s a regular musical guest on late-nite TV.  Her music still carries with it a message of hope and tolerance. A message that reminds us that even though there have been victories in the struggle for civil rights, the fight is far from over.

 

STAPLE SINGERS/MAVIS STAPLES SUGGESTED LISTENING

The Staple Singers: Uncloudy Day (VeeJay)

The Staple Singers: Freedom Highway (Epic/Legacy)

The Staple Singers: Be Attitude: Respect Yourself (Stax)

The Staple Singers: The Staple Swingers (Stax)

The Staple Singers: The Best of The Staple Singers (Stax)

Mavis Staples: We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti) produced by Ry Cooder

Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone (Anti) produced by Jeff Tweedy

Mavis Staples: One True Vine (Anti) produced by Jeff Tweedy

 

RESPECT YOURSELF: The Story of STAX Records

STAX

RESPECT YOURSELF: THE STORY OF STAX RECORDS Bloomsbury USA

Author Robert Gordon has been writing about the music of Memphis for almost 30 years. In Respect Yourself: The Story of STAX Records Mr. Gordon not only tells the story of STAX but also the story of the Civil Rights movement in Memphis.  Passionately written and meticulously researched this book takes you from the label’s meager beginnings in a garage outside Memphis to it’s bankruptcy in 1975.   Along with Mr. Gordon’s narration you hear from the people that made STAX happen, making this book one of a kind.

A LITTLE STAX HISTORY…

Started by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in 1957, STAX Records was more then just a record label.  It was a voice in the community.  The label’s open door policy made it possible for anyone to come in off the street and set up an audition. It didn’t matter where you were from or what the color of your skin was, you were welcomed at STAX as long as you had a passion for music.

Right from the beginning STAX did things it’s own way. Segregation may have been alive and well in Memphis during the 1960’s, but that didn’t stop STAX founder Jim Stewart from hiring an African American DJ named Al Bell to be his lead promotions man.  Working together side by side Jim, Estelle, and Al turned STAX records from a little indie label into a household name!  STAX artists like Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MG’s, Carla Thomas, and William Bell put the label on the map with singles that started appearing on the R&B and Pop charts.  Money was coming in and things were really rolling, until one very dark December day in 1967…

Today many people can remember exactly where they were when they learned that the plane carrying Otis Redding and The Bar-Keys went down. Otis was the soul of STAX and the voice of soul music.  A few months later while the people of STAX were still grieving over the loss of Otis and the Bar Keys their world was rocked again.  On the evening of April 4, 1968  Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  Needless to say, after the assassination of Dr. King everything was different, especially in Memphis.  If all this wasn’t enough,  the label’s distributor Atlantic Records ended it’s relationship with STAX.  With it’s biggest star gone and no way to get music to the stores most label’s would have called it a day, but most labels didn’t have Al Bell.  It was then that Al and the folks at STAX hunkered down and staged one of the biggest comebacks in music history.

The early 70’s found STAX again at the top of the Soul music world. This time around STAX would reach heights that were even greater then it did in the 1960’s.  Al Bell gained full control of the label and STAX rode the success of artists like Isaac Hayes, The Emotions, Johnnie Taylor, and The Staple Singers all the way to the top of the charts.  Sadly this rebirth would be short lived as some questionable business decisions and over expatiation lead to STAX eventually having to declaring bankruptcy in 1975.

All that said, STAX has lived on in many different ways. Many of their artists are still celebrated today and have found new audiences. Artists such as William Bell, Mavis Staples, and Eddie Floyd still perform and continue to release new music while others like Sam Moore are mostly retired but still appear at the occasional music festival. The studio was rebuilt and is now a museum (possibly the best museum in Memphis not named The National Civil Rights museum). There is also the Stax Music Academy, a music school that is focused on providing music education to local youth. So while the days of Otis roaming the halls and Al Bell running the office might be gone all is not lost. The future of Stax is very bright.

Merry Clayton: The Voice Behind the Hits

Merry Clayton

Ever since her early performances in the Churches of New Orleans Merry has turned heads with her larger then life voice.  Her professional career started when she backed up Bobby Darin on some of his early recordings.  Form there it wasn’t long before she was selected to be a “Raelette” and sing backup for one of her main influences, Mr. Ray Charles.  Little did she know that singing backup for Ray was just the beginning.  In later years Merry would go on to sing backup for artists such as Joe Cocker, Neil Young, Carole King, Lynyrd Skynyrd and of course, The Rolling Stones.  Usually the most talented vocalist at whatever session she was working on, Merry signed with Lou Alder’s Ode Record label in the late 60’s. Working with music industry legend Lou Alder, Merry began what many thought would be a successful a solo career.  Unfortunately, her records didn’t sell and most of her solo recordings remain unknown and forgotten about by the general public.

Late one night in 1969 singer Merry Clayton was just falling asleep when she received a call from record producer Jack Nitzsch.  Jack was in the middle of a late night studio session and was desperately looking for a female vocalist to add backing vocals on a track called “Gimmie Shelter”.  Very pregnant and not really in the mood to leave her warm bed, Merry listened while Jack tried to convince her that doing this session with a band called “The Rolling Stones” would be a great career move.   It didn’t matter that she’d never heard of the band and wasn’t familiar with their music,  Merry was a seasoned pro. This was just another session gig.  She finally agreed to do the session and went to the studio and nailed the track in three quick takes. Then as quickly as she came in to the studio, she was out the door and gone in the night.  The song became a huge hit and has since become a staple of the Stone’s live show.  Even though it was her singing that took the song to the next level Merry couldn’t bring herself to listen to the track for many years. After her session with the Stones she had miscarriage and lost her baby.  It has been speculated that her vigorous singing on “Gimmie Shelter” contributed to the miscarriage.

Hopefully 2013 is the year the world will finally know Merry Clayton.  She is the subject of an excellent new documentary called 20 Feet From Stardom that follows the lives of some very talented backup singers.   In conjunction with the release 20 Feet From Stardom Sony/Ode Records has release a collection of Merry’s solo recordings called The Best Of Merry Clayton.  This collection covers most of Merry’s solo career and features soulful renditions of some popular classic rock songs.  One only needs to listen to a few minutes of Merry’s rendition of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” (the album’s opening track) to know that listening to Merry sing is a religious experience.   Very different then the original version, the song takes on a whole new life when Merry screams “…I heard screamin’, bullwhips crackin’, how long is it gonna last?”.   Other great tracks on this album are her versions of Bill Withers “Grandma’s Hands”,  James Taylor’s”Country Road”, and of course the Stones’ “Gimmie Shelter” (her first Ode Records release).  In 17 great tracks you get to hear the voice that helped many artists take their songs to the next level.  Here’s hoping that someday soon Merry will reach the high level of stardom that she so rightly deserves.

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THE RELATIVES: The Electric Word

THE RELATIVES The Electric Word (Yep Roc Records)

Psychedelic Gospel? YES PLEASE!

Founded in Dallas, Texas in 1970 by two brothers, Rev. Gean and Rev. Tommie West, The Relatives have been playing their special brand of Funky-Gospel for over 40 years. The band enjoyed some local success the 1970’s, releasing three singles and sharing the stage with some of the biggest names in Gospel and Soul as well as headlined their own shows.  Then in 1980 after a decade of playing gigs of all shapes and sizes the band members called it quits to focus on other parts of their lives.  Fortunately for us in 2009 the good people at Heavy Light Records re-released the band’s singles on the compilation Don’t Let Me Fall.  The album received very positive feedback and inspired the band to start performing live again.  Word soon got out about the band’s amazing live show and the group was booked into many of the top roots music festivals in America.  Now after a successful return to the stage that’s brought the band many new fans they’ve decided it’s time to head back to the recording studio and give the people a new studio record called, The Electric Word.

After listening to The Electric Word (Yep Roc) you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that this is The Relatives’ first release of new music in almost 40 years.  Produced and recorded by fellow Texan Jim Eno of the band Spoon, the band sounds just as powerful and soulful as ever.  As you’d expect, the bands vocal harmonies are spot on but what really sticks out about this recording is the power of the band!  On the tune Let Your Light Shine the bass and guitar are LOUD and up in the mix giving the tune a real psychedelic rock vibe (think Sly Stone meets Band of Gypsies).

Along with psychedelic rock the band also serves up a healthy dose of FUNK.  Things Are Changing and It’s Coming Up Again both have a great James Brown/O.V. Wright vibe and Speak To Me (What’s Wrong With America?) is a beautiful civil-rights balled that shows off the bands true vocal power.  The band may not be re-inventing the wheel with it’s songwriting but that really doesn’t matter. This album’s purpose is to get you out to see the band on-stage where they really shine. Which is exactly what you should do if these guys pass through your town.